GOP will be dared to filibuster debt ceiling: Harry Reid makes his move

Majority leader will force GOP to give up their debt limit extortion dream -- or filibuster America into default

Published October 7, 2013 10:31PM (EDT)

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky, and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.            (AP/Jonathan Ernst/David J. Phillip)
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky, and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. (AP/Jonathan Ernst/David J. Phillip)

Last week I reported that while President Obama still steadfastly refuses to award the GOP policy concessions for increasing the debt limit, he would accept non-substantive procedural sidecars, like the kind Republicans supported in February when they increased the debt limit alongside a separate requirement to withhold congressional pay unless both the House and Senate passed budget resolutions.

Today, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made his move. He plans to introduce legislation to increase the debt limit, and dare Republicans to kill it with a filibuster.

But it won't be a straightforward dollar increase or a time-limited borrowing authority extension. Reid will likely use a mechanism to allow the president to increase the debt limit on his own, subject to a veto-able resolution of disapproval by the Congress. In other words, the only way the debt limit won't increase is if two-thirds of both the House and Senate feel it must be pulled back into the realm of legislative horsetrading -- something that will never happen absent bipartisan agreement.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (of all people!) originally designed the scheme back in 2011, when Congress was desperately trying to escape its disastrous debt limit brinkmanship.

That's a process reform senior administration officials say they'd be happy to accept. And if the Senate passes legislation to increase the debt limit without tacking on spending cuts or Obamacare concessions or any quantifiable ransom, it will put a tremendous amount of pressure on House Republicans to follow suit.

There are signs, too, that Republicans in the House and Senate would be satisfied with an approach that ultimately nets zero policy concessions, though not necessarily the one Reid's advocating.

Here, John Boehner's deputy chief of staff portrays a procedural debt limit concession as compatible with his boss' insistence that a "clean" debt limit increase won't pass the House.

Late last week, Politico reported that Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, proposed a plan that would require "instructions for the House and Senate tax writing committees to produce a tax reform proposal and to find $600 billion in mandatory savings outlined in President Barack Obama’s budget in order to raise the national debt ceiling by a similar amount."

There's an ambiguity here. Read one way, it suggests that Portman is proposing to increase the debt limit, and then require the Senate Finance Committee and House Ways and Means Committee to negotiate tax and entitlement reforms, without any requirement that they reach agreement. Read another, it suggests Portman is demanding entitlement cuts upfront, as a concession for increasing the debt limit.

Today, Portman's spokesman tells me his boss would prefer to lock in the entitlement cuts upfront, but did not respond when I asked if kicking the specifics to the relevant committees after increasing the debt limit would cause Portman to withdraw his support.

Portman's an interesting case, too. He's got strong conservative bona fides, and real political ambition. But to build national appeal, or win reelection in Ohio, his best bet is to ride to the rescue here without getting his fingerprints on anything controversial or enlisting himself with the extortionists in the House.

I'm not convinced that every specific of Portman's plan would appeal to Reid and Senate Democrats. But if the price for increasing the debt limit is unconstrained budget negotiations, without an enforcement mechanism like sequestration, I think they'd go for it.

Either of these outcomes would allow Democrats to establish a precedent that they will not let Republicans use the debt limit to extort policies they can't enact in traditional negotiations, and allow Republicans to claim they got Democrats to negotiate and agree to an unclean CR.

It's the way out that's been staring everyone in the face since the standoff began.

By Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Barack Obama Debt Default Debt Limit Default Filibuster Harry Reid John Boehner Rob Portman